Heroes, Villains, and the Narratives We Tell

Something has been bothering me lately. I’ve noticed an increase in the use of the word narrative outside of literary contexts, specifically to describe the stories people tell themselves, and others, to explain or justify their beliefs or actions. I find this gratifying, in a sense, because it supports what I’ve said in the past about the importance of storytelling to our species. I think storytelling is probably as old as human language and I’ve written about how it is the root of both the field of history, which is factual, and the imaginative art of fiction. What I’m coming to understand now, however, is that mental narratives may in fact be fundamentally important to how we make sense of our world.

Events can be complicated, subtle, or obscure, with conflicting facts that push our understanding in different, or even opposite, directions. Because we don’t like to be confused or uncertain, we try to establish a thread that winds around and connects the facts to form a coherent narrative. And then we tend to pull the thread straighter. We try to make the story clearer or simpler – or more pleasing. In the process we edit it, dropping facts that don’t fit the narrative, or embellish it by adding presumptions that fill in gaps, or even pseudo-facts that make it a better story – one that’s more impressive, more emotionally satisfying, or that presents us (or other people involved) in a better light. This process would be fundamentally dishonest if we did it consciously. But the fact is, we often aren’t very aware of what we’re doing. We’re not paying attention to the process.

There’s probably a purpose to the construction of edited mental narratives – an evolutionary function – as there is to most of the strange but commonplace features of our thought process. It may contribute to how we maintain a positive attitude and self-image, how we keep our hopes and dreams alive, how we find our purposes and rally each other to our causes when we tell our narratives to others. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, this may not have been a problem: Life was short and there were no fact checkers. In the modern world, things get more complicated.

Basically, I think we all need to be more aware of our tendency to edit our perceptions of reality.

Being a fiction writer causes me to worry about the effect that fictional narratives may have on the thought processes of readers (or movie-goers). Creators of fiction construct their works in a very conscious way, of course. Assuming we’re not bent on probing the ambiguities of the human soul, this usually means we’re in the business of creating heroes and villains (among other things). To give our characters depth, we know it’s a good idea to give the hero a flaw or two and to give the villain a back-story that explains his or her motivations. But all of that aside, the nitty-gritty of character development mostly involves showing good guys being good and bad guys being bad. And our readers (or movie viewers) immerse themselves in our fictional narratives. They come prepared to buy into stories – at least for the duration – that are prime examples of “edited” narratives designed to be good stories, to be clear, dramatic, emotionally satisfying, etc.

And the thought keeps nagging me: Are fiction writers showing people how to edit their real-life narratives? Are we teaching people how to make storybook heroes and villains out of people in the real world? Further, are we giving people emotional practice in loving their heroes and hating their villains?

Looking for the good in people can be a positive thing, but seeing people as heroes of fictional stature is unrealistic. No one is that perfect, and we shouldn’t expect, much less demand, that people always be right or always be in the right. Hero worship can lead to getting conned, or following the wrong leader. The same thing goes for those – both individuals and groups – that we might seek to cast as villains. Vilification is easy to do, especially if you know the tropes and have become insulated from the facts. Hating people can be very emotionally satisfying, too, but it’s actually quite rare for people to be genuinely or completely evil. We need to be both critical, and forgiving, of ourselves and of our fellow human beings.

I’m not suggesting that writers are to blame for the polarization of our society. Our current poisonous political climate has many contributing causes. What I’m wondering is whether creators of fiction might inadvertently be feeding it when we take the easy path by setting up black-and-white moral situations or casually creating larger-than-life heroes or villains for readers to either love or hate. It’s worth considering whether writers – especially of the more popular genres – might actively work to make things better by humanizing their characters and creating conflicts that are morally more complex. Stories need protagonists, but does every story need a villain to be emotionally satisfying? Might it be just as powerful to watch an antagonist (or protagonist if there are no antagonists) come to understand his or her error and find redemption? What if more writers made a point of celebrating the act of realizing and admitting that one is wrong? Might that help to make a better world?

That’s it, basically. As always, tell me what you think. What about your own favorite fictional heroes and villains? Or ones that you have created?

I should take a moment to analyze the characters I created in my recently released first novel, Gift of Chance. These characters evolved over a long period of time and well before I started thinking about the content of this post. I’m guilty of creating, in Nagaro, a hero with a well-developed moral compass who rarely makes serious mistakes. He’s a bit of a paragon. In my defense, he is also a thinking man, one who critically examines and worries about his own actions and those of others. I perhaps did a little better on villains. There is no single villain whose actions create a central conflict that is resolved only upon his/her defeat. There are several minor characters who act as villains for a limited purpose and who I made no effort to humanize. There are more characters, however, who are mixed. They may begin by acting badly but come to a better place in the end, or their histories, once revealed, cast them in a more sympathetic light.

Concept vs Execution in Fiction

Any productive creative effort consists of concept and execution. Concept is, of course, the idea behind the thing, the description of it, or the mental image that we have of what the thing is meant to be. Execution is what happens when we try to actually produce the thing, as in: “His execution of the dive was flawless”. Or it is the final fleshed-out form of the thing, as in: “While the architect’s vision for the building was sound, the execution is marred by awkward flaws.”

And my point, of course, is that concept and execution can be either good or bad (or so-so) independently of each other. The overall value or quality of any creation derives from the interplay between concept and execution, in ways that vary depending on the field or medium involved. Some creative fields are more concept-driven, some less, and different crafts and art-forms may be more or less tolerant of inexpert execution depending in part on the audience.

So, how does this relate to fiction writing?

Fiction covers a lot of territory and so does the relative importance of concept and execution in fiction. If you’re writing literary fiction, you’d better have top-notch execution. For genre fiction, this can be less important. Some genre fiction readers are very forgiving as long as the story contains the genre-specific tropes and elements they’ve come to enjoy. The importance of concept to readers also varies. Science fiction readers may demand something truly new in the concept department, whereas readers of mystery or romance – or even literary fiction – may not really care about that. How much readers of any stripe care about concept versus execution depends basically on the extent to which they read to get new thoughts and ideas versus reading for the experience of reading. And of course, they may be after both. But the one place where concept really trumps execution is in getting agents and publishers to look at a manuscript from an unknown author, which is something I find a bit problematic.

It can be a little hard to say exactly where a fiction manuscript’s concept leaves off and its execution begins. The core of the concept consists pretty much of what can be fitted into the infamous “elevator speech” – the nutshell-sized description that’s used to “sell” the manuscript to an agent or a publisher. One might extend concept to include the set of plot points that go into a synopsis or outline of the story, although this begins to grade into execution. Any sample pages or chapters that may be allowed as part of a submission clearly speak to execution, but they really provide only a glimpse of it. The truth is that execution consists not only of the quality of the writing, and things like “voice” that one might see in a sample chapter, but actually includes all the word choices and phrasing, and all of the details of how the writer has chosen to unfold the story – from beginning to end. Basically, execution is the whole thing, and the only way an agent or acquisition editor can fully assess the execution of a work is to read the entire manuscript – which isn’t going to happen unless they’re “sold” on the concept. In fact, I’m willing to bet that a lot of agents don’t even look at the synopsis, let alone the writing sample, if the first paragraph of the query letter doesn’t “grab” them.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why this is so: there are just too many manuscripts. Agents are inundated, and they just don’t have time to read everything that comes their way. Plus, they really shouldn’t take on manuscripts they don’t think they can sell to equally busy and concept-oriented acquisitions editors. Still, it means there’s a possibility of works being passed up that are well-executed but have ordinary-sounding or hard-to-pin-down concepts. This is clearly a loss for those readers who value the experience of reading a rich, nuanced, and well-crafted tale, over the whiz-bang of nutshell novelty. (You can guess where my preferences lie.)

There are people – agents and others – who argue that the essence of any novel ought to be reducible to one or two brief sentences. I simply disagree. Consider these two familiar works in the fantasy genre: Alice in Wonderland, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Both works have essentially the same core concept: A young girl is transported to a magical land where she has a series of adventures before managing to get home again. Yet these two works are in no sense the same story, and in fact could hardly be more different in execution.  I could easily add a few choice details to the nutshell description that would tell you instantly which book it represented, but that’s not the point. To begin with, the plot of Alice in Wonderland is scarcely important in capturing the work. How could I convey the cleverness of Lewis Carroll’s wordplay, or the book’s wild non-sequiturs? The Wizard of Oz is more conventional in its plot-reliance, but simply stating the elements of that plot hardly captures the charm and nuance of L. Frank Baum’s classic tale.

To be honest, I first became aware of how much traditional publishing is biased towards concept years ago when I tried querying book one of The Nagaro Chronicle. That discovery is one reason why I’ve opted for independent publication. My work’s strength lies in its execution. Producing a short, plot-based, nutshell description of the first book that made it sound in any way unique or special proved challenging to the point of exasperation.

So what are your thoughts? As a reader, where do you come down with respect to concept and execution? If you’re a writer, where does your own work fall?

Reward and Punishment in Fiction Writing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStories need conflict. This generally means that things must go wrong for the protagonist before they go right. But how far wrong? Bad things must happen, but how many bad things must there be to earn something good? And just exactly how bad must the bad things get?

There is no single simple answer to this, basically because people – readers and writers, both – vary widely in their tolerance for punishment. The characters in stories similarly vary widely in how much they can take, depending on what attributes and resources they’ve been given. The context of any given adverse event varies as well. The death of a character’s mother, for example, might become anything from a life-shattering tragedy to a bittersweet farewell, or even a welcome relief – depending on the context and on the character.

Readers obviously get to know what to expect from different authors and can deal with the reward vs punishment issue by simply choosing what they read. I recently wrapped up the second of two linked fantasy trilogies by Robin Hobb – involving Fitz and the Fool, if you know her work – with a sigh of relief because I realized that Hobb’s punishment/reward ratio is really a bit out of my personal comfort zone. Robin Hobb is a superb writer. Anyone inclined to look down on genre fiction in general, or fantasy in particular, should try some of hers. But she’s awfully hard on poor Fitz in those six books. And it isn’t just physical pain and suffering, either, there are also the mistakes the character makes, the choices that lead predictably to bad consequences, the way other characters are forever being angry with him and blaming him for things. I did enjoy those two trilogies, but I would have enjoyed them more if they were a bit less harrowing – or if Hobb had put in a bit more reward to balance all the punishment.

And this is an important point: Punishment from a reader’s perspective can come in many different forms, as can reward. External events that are outside the character’s control are only the most obvious source of reward and punishment. The decisions a character makes are another source. Are they reasonably intelligent given what the character knows? And are they well-intentioned? Or are they manifestly unwise or self-serving? How the character responds to events is yet another source of punishment and reward that is equally as important as the events themselves. I can put up with a lot of beatings and setbacks if the character displays what I consider to be positive attributes. Is the character tolerant, honest, and altruistic? Or is he judgmental, deceitful, and selfish? Does he admit to and accept responsibility for his mistakes? Does he show kindness? Moral courage? Suffering can be ennobling if borne with grace and fortitude. In short, there are a lot of ways to give me rewards as a reader while still having the hero up to his neck in hot water.

What should one do as a writer, given the range of reader tolerance? Staying true to your own natural inclinations is one option, on the theory that there will be readers out there who will respond favorably. Of course, there will also be readers who don’t. Doubtless there are readers who think Robin Hobb is spot-on, and others who think her writing is too tame. Trying to shape one’s writing to fit the intended audience is another possibility, especially for beginning writers, and especially if you find that you are way out one extreme or the other of the tolerance curve.

So what’s your personal tolerance for punishment when you read? Are your criteria for judging punishment similar to mine, or different? If you’re a writer, how do you balance reward and punishment in your work – or do you just not think about it?

Does Genre Fiction Need a Theme?

I’ve read and heard a lot of advice to writers over the years, and the word “theme” has cropped up a number of times. It was listed, for example, among the things that should be found in the first two pages of your story. Really? I mean, I’ve always associate the idea of having a theme with fiction of the more literary sort, but I write genre fiction. I kept wondering; does genre fiction need to have a theme?

I think the short answer is no. All genre fiction has to do to be successful with readers is to meet the expectations of the sub-group of readers who read books of that particular genre. And if those readers don’t expect a theme, then you don’t need to have one. A mystery is a story-puzzle wrapped around some hopefully interesting characters. Theme needed? No. A romance doesn’t need any other theme besides the obvious one of romantic love that defines the genre. Fantasy readers expect to be transported beyond the boundaries of their mundane existence, and science fiction readers are looking for a provocative “what if” to bend their minds. Conclusion? Genre stories don’t need no stinkin’ theme!

So why am I writing this? Because I’m a natural-born worry-wart and my brain wouldn’t put the idea down. And the thing is, when I took a hard look at my seven-book fantasy series, The Nagaro Chronicle, with the theme-idea in mind, darned if I didn’t find some! This, even though I hadn’t set out to put one in. The Chronicle follows its main character, Nagaro, across ten years of his life, and he’s a man with a destiny who doesn’t know it. Something had to drive the character, so I made sure there were things that mattered to him – things like honor and using his gifts to do good in the world – and these concepts became threads that are now integral to the character and his story. They run throughout the entire series. And I think the series is the better for it.

I’m not saying that having a theme turns my work into great literature, but it does provide a cohesiveness, perhaps a little more depth, and a feeling of enhanced meaning. It also contributes to the work’s unique flavor and finally gives me a nut-shell description that could help potential target readers identify with my work. When I tell them the series has themes of honor and altruism, I know it will resonate with some readers and I hope they’ll be more likely to buy that first book. Readers who don’t care for heroes who are too “nice” may also be motivated to steer clear – which reduces my risk of getting unenthusiastic reviews from folks who just aren’t part of my target audience.

I don’t think you can just slap a theme on top of an existing manuscript, or poke a few holes and try to insert one. Themes have to be organically part of the story. But if you see the seeds of a theme in your work as you’re writing it – or find one trying to emerge while doing revisions – I’m suggesting that you nurture it. And also that you find a way to work it into your cover blurb.

What do you think? Am I onto something, or off-base? Any genre works with themes that you can point to? Do they benefit from having one? How about your own work?

Can fiction change the world?

Ray Bradbury once said that he wasn’t trying to predict the future; he was trying to prevent it.

Everyone accepts that nonfiction books can be very influential, but does fiction ever change the world? Well, I think it can—by changing awareness or attitudes. Usually, when it happens, that was the author’s intent. I believe Charles Dickens hoped to improve the lot of London’s poor by presenting their plight to the readers of his Victorian tales—such familiar works as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was clearly intended to influence attitudes towards slavery during the period leading up to the American Civil War. It’s generally credited with having some impact. (It was the best-selling novel of the 19th Century, although it’s now often derided for its sentimentality and its stereotypes.) Other influences were not intentional: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories have probably influenced the development of forensic science, although Doyle had no such intention.

Even if a book doesn’t change the world, it may still change someone’s life. Most writers of fiction are working from a desire to entertain – or, in a mundane sense, to sell books to readers. Readers simply won’t buy books if they aren’t entertained by them. Writers may also be driven by an urge to create, the need to respond to their innate desire to tell a story. But what makes a book entertaining? What makes a story a good story? I think ultimately it is the human element. The writer takes a character and puts him or her in a situation, and then proceeds to describe the consequences of what the character does. The up-shot may not be earthshaking, but it must at least ring true. For any given person reading that story, the truth it contains may resonate in a special way – a meaningful or a helpful way. That may not be why writers write, or why readers read; it’s just an inescapable byproduct of the whole activity. And once in a while a work of fiction may just capture the mind of a generation and take it somewhere it otherwise would not have gone.

Well, maybe that’s going a little far. But I don’t think fiction writers should be put down for engaging in a “trivial” activity. I don’t think they should sell themselves short. After all, you just never know.

What do you think? Ever want to change the world? Can you think of a fiction work that has done that? Is there one that has changed you?

On editing and self-editing

Edit Ruthlessly
Edit Ruthlessly (Photo credit: Dan Patterson)

My husband and I are redoing our front yard to convert from high to low water use. Being situated in the alluvial zone at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, our little property is “blessed” with an abundance of rocks – in all sizes. Hence our brilliant idea: Do a rock garden.

So I’ve been spending a little time out there several days a week placing rocks to hold and frame the dirt for planting succulents. I place those rocks very carefully. The effect I’m looking for is not exactly a natural arrangement, but a visually interesting and attractive one. Sometimes I go out in the morning and rearrange some of the rocks I placed the day before – or the ones I placed several days ago. Sometimes I find myself sitting inside looking out the front window and thinking, no… that one would be better a little bit to the right, or, yes… but I’m going to need a bigger one right about there to balance that other little grouping…

Eventually it dawned on me: I’m editing the rocks.

Then there’s the Christmas tree. We have a string of little white lights and an eclectic assortment of ornaments. Every year it takes me a couple of hours to decorate the tree to something approaching visual perfection  – and then I spend the rest of the holiday season tweaking the lights and rearranging the ornaments to better balance the sizes and the colors, and to fill those annoying little “holes” that somehow weren’t apparent when I finished the original arrangement. Sometimes I’m sure I move ornaments to fill holes that were created by moving ornaments to fill other holes…

Yes, you got it. I edit the Christmas tree.

I think I’m a natural born editor.

Given that I’ve been writing things of one kind or another for most of my life, it’s hardly surprising that I edit my own writing. In fact, I do so constantly. Sometimes it feels like I can’t leave any two previously written words together. It also probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that I have become, here in my middle years, a professional editor – for scientific texts. I do scientific texts because I have a background in science that gives me added credibility for that task, but I could easily edit other things. The only thing remotely remarkable about my being an editor, really, is that it took me so long to come around to it.

After giving the matter some thought, I’ve concluded there are three basic requirements for being a good editor (of the text variety).

  1. An outstanding command of the language.
  2. The kind of patient and meticulous nature that makes giving “attention to detail” a foregone conclusion.
  3. A clear concept of what the final product ought to look like.

Obviously I wasn’t born with the first. I must have acquired it, although I do think a certain amount of talent must have been involved because it certainly required very little effort on my part. The second, I was apparently born with – in spades.  The third has always seemed pretty obvious to me and not particularly difficult to achieve. My method of achieving it can be summed up in three words:  Read good examples. (Of course, if your client has a manual or style sheet he or she wants you to use, it goes without saying that you use the manual or style sheet.)

It is a little bit surprising that it has taken me until fairly recently to really appreciate the need to have someone else edit my writing.  Well, maybe it’s not that surprising. When I started writing scientific papers, after all, I always edited myself – over and over – both before and after my thesis advisor had put in his two cents’ worth.  And when the proofs came back from the journal, I never noticed that any changes had been made to what I’d sent. There might have been some that I didn’t notice of course, but basically I think I wrote (and self-edited) well enough that my work didn’t need a whole lot of editing.

In other words, being that I’m a natural born editor, I think I might be forgiven for getting the impression that it was the writer’s job to get it right in the first place.

The trouble with this concept is, you can’t.

I mean, you can’t reliably get it completely right in the first place.  Not when you’re writing the tens of thousands of words – the dozens or hundreds of pages – that go into something the length of a book. The average essay or scientific paper is only a few pages or a few thousand words.  A writer who happens to be a pretty good editor has a fighting chance of catching all the errors in something that length, but not in a book.

Many people have noticed that we all tend to have trouble seeing our own mistakes on the page (or the screen.) You know what you wrote, after all. The fact that you didn’t actually write what you know you wrote can be really quite shocking when someone finally points it out to you. It can be positively mortifying – especially if you’re an editor, believe me.

Even when it comes to other people’s writing, there are certain kinds of errors that we have trouble seeing. The absence of small common words where a line is broken, for example, or the same word repeated at the end of one line and the beginning of the next.

Why are we error prone in this particular way?

Well, it obviously has something to do with expectations.  But I think it also has something to do with how our brains work. The brain is famous for filling in gaps in our perceptions to create the impression of a seamless and coherent world. Studies have shown that our visual systems only take samples of what’s out there. The fact that our eyes are constantly moving and taking samples, together with the vast amount of experience our brains have with interpreting those samples, combine to give us the impression that our minds simply look out through the windows of our eyes and see the world as it is.

Did you know that the design of the eye is such that the image cast by the lens on the retina is inverted, top to bottom, and left to right? As far as the eye is concerned, objects appear to fall up. Why doesn’t it look as if objects fall up?  Because, at a very early age, your brain learned to turn the images around.  It’s an amazing thing, the brain – quite miraculous. Right up to the point where that miracle prevents us from being able to see our own mistakes.

So, even though I’m an editor, I know that I still need an editor. When it comes time to get my manuscript ready for publication, I know I’m going to have to hire one. (And that’s not just me trying to promote my own profession.)

Writers, readers, and breaking trust

Truth
Truth (Photo credit: d4vidbruce)

Among the comments on my recent post about truth in fiction, was one from the norfolknovelist  in which she pointed out, among other things, that if you violate the truth in your fiction, your readers may decide they can’t trust you. This is a valid point, although it’s also clear that fiction writers routinely bend or stretch the truth in some ways without getting into trouble with their readers (not to mention constructing things out of whole cloth). This is because readers of fiction are willing within limits to do something called suspending disbelief. After all, if everything in a fiction story had to be true, it wouldn’t exactly be fiction, would it?

Or, as my teenage son so aptly puts it whenever I start getting bent out of shape over some scientific inaccuracy in a book or movie: “Mom, it’s fiction!

So, what can you get away with, and what can’t you? Well, for the fictitious elements of your story, you can get away with anything from plausible to downright impossible depending on the genre.  You can do angels and demons, magical transformations, time travel – for the right audience. That’s where disbelief-suspension comes in. The devil, however, is in the mundane details – where it comes down to reader knowledge and reader expectations. These, in turn, vary depending both on the setting of your story and on the audience you are writing for. If you’re writing a story involving contemporary life, you’d better get as many details right as possible because your readers are contemporary with your setting and they are going to know details. Every reader may not know everything, but they’re all going to know something. If you’re writing a crime drama or detective story you had better get your forensics right because people who read this kind of story care about that kind of detail. Making an inaccurate statement about the kind of information that can be gleaned from a particular forensic technique is going to lose their trust big-time if they either already know the truth or later find out that you had it wrong. On the other hand, these readers aren’t likely to care if a minor character who is a bird watcher makes an inaccurate comment about the markings of the black-headed grosbeak – unless, perhaps, it turns out to be relevant to the solution of the crime.

BUT, there is another – perhaps even more important – aspect to reader trust.

This other aspect of trust relates more to internal consistency than to consistency with the external world. I’m not talking about saying a character has red hair in chapter 2 and brown hair in chapter 7 because you forgot what you wrote in chapter 2.  That’s an error of continuity. It needs to be fixed, but if it were to sneak through, it would be more likely to make your readers think you were sloppy than to lose their trust. No, I’m talking about lying to your readers. I’m talking about the situation where the writer purposefully tells the readers that A is true in chapter 2 and then has it turn out in chapter 7 that A is not true and in fact the truth is B.

Why on earth would writers do this? Because they don’t want the readers to guess the truth too early in the story! Not surprisingly, mystery writers are some of the worst offenders, but at some level every story is a mystery and so all fiction writers are potentially subject to this temptation.

Here’s the deal: When you tell a story, the reader implicitly trusts that what you say is true is true, within the context of the story. To put it another way, when you are the omniscient narrator, you are the Voice of God – for that story.

So don’t overstate the facts to try to mislead your readers. It’s a lie. It’s a cheat. It’s a violation of the readers’ trust.

Consider your wording carefully to achieve the desired effect without engaging in outright deception. There are important differences between the following examples:

a)      He looked in the window and saw his wife lying dead on the floor.

b)      He looked in the window and saw his wife lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

c)       He looked in the window and saw the body of a dark-haired woman in a blue evening gown lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

In the first case you’ve told us the person he saw was his wife and that she was dead. It had better not later turn out that it wasn’t his wife or that she wasn’t dead. In the second case you’ve told us it was his wife, but while the pool of blood may suggest she is dead, you haven’t actually said so. And finally, in the last case, you haven’t explicitly identified the woman (although the description might match that of his wife), nor have you explicitly stated that the woman is dead.

A skillful writer can have the readers pretty much where he or she wants them to be without ever telling them a lie.